Reading the BSFA Awards: 1983 “Tik-Tok” by John Sladek

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I’ve been reading and reviewing winners and nominees.

Tik-Tok by John Sladek (1983 BSFA Award Winner)

Tik-Tok is the name of the robot whose viewpoint we follow through this sinister novel. An incident in which he (using that pronoun because it’s used in the novel) is beaten by a human has undone his programming that required him to follow Asimov’s laws of robotics. He’s taken to exploring his own murderous tendencies, alongside interactions with humans who are working to try to get pay and other rights for robots.

The book is thematically interesting, though only at a surface level. Other books have explored what happens when Asimov’s Laws are taken to their logical extreme (see the excellent novel, The Humanoids by Jack Williamson- link to my review), and certainly the implications of the laws themselves are fairly thoroughly explored in various literature. Here, however, a more novel question of “What happens if something happens to disable the laws?” is asked. It’s an intriguing premise, though ultimately not enough to carry the story.

The plot itself falters occasionally, especially when flashbacks start to intervene. It’s not a bad way of telling how Tik-Tok got to the point he’s at, but the choppy nature of the flashbacks, which are frequently broken up themselves over the course of several scenes, means that readers have to be hyper-aware of exactly what time they’re in as they’re reading. Thus, for example, there might be three timelines- A (present), B (5 years ago), and C (10 years ago), and the scenes might alternate like A, B, C, B, A, C, A, B or somesuch. It may never have been quite that extreme, but there were a few times I caught myself thinking I was in a different time than I was and getting quite confused. Again, this is largely because the flashbacks themselves are broken up so that the scenes aren’t entire vignettes at once.

The murders Tik-Tok commits are occasionally fairly gruesome, so readers with qualms about that kind of content will likely want to steer clear. One poignant scene has Tik-Tok describing why he does what he does, and he explains that he basically wants to know what it’s like to sin. It’s a powerful moment in the midst of what feels like violence for the sake of violence through most of the novel. Once we finally arrive at that scene, though, I as a reader had become mostly immune to the goings-on around Tik-Tok. The scenes shifted from violence to tormenting of robots to sexual or other deviancy to further violence to covering up violence and it all starts to get kind of jumbled together.

Sladek’s nearly bland way of telling the story works quite well in character. The matter-of-fact tone lends a sense of the truly depraved to our robotic point of view, and made me as a reader struggle to put a moral compass on the novel.

Ultimately, Tik-Tok may have worked better as a novella or short story instead of a novel. The question at the core of the novel is of interest, but can’t sustain the action across a work of a novel’s length. The few reasons to relate to Tik-Tok combined with a choppy storytelling style made it a difficult read overall.

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2 thoughts on “Reading the BSFA Awards: 1983 “Tik-Tok” by John Sladek

  1. socrates17 says:

    I liked this a lot more than you did, but I’ve been a big fan of Sladek since reading Mechasm (UK title The Reproductive System, which I’m sure sounded too risqué for a US publisher) as an Ace Special. I’ve mentioned before that since about the early ’70s I read more UK and UK-oriented writers than US writers. Sladek, like Tom Disch, was always more popular in the UK than in the US. I especially loved Sladek’s satirical approach and snarky prose. I love the Roderick books, for instance.

    Regarding Tik-Tok in particular, I greatly enjoy the feeling of being unstuck in time and having to work (hard, if necessary) to retain my bearings. I love the challenge! But it is Sladek’s prose more than anything else that draws me to his work, including this book.

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